Ron Gilbert is finally back. After many years of obscure blackout of adventure games, it seems like there is a kind of revival, especially following the release of Broken Age and the remastered editions of older LucasArts games. Broken Age by Tim Schaffer was rather disappointing (especially the second act), so I was eagerly waiting for Ron Gilbert’s take on this almost dead genre. The first thing you notice with Thimbleweed park is that it plays on nostalgia, by reusing the typical verb-based system of older graphical adventure games (select a verb, click on an objet to formulate an action), and its presentation based on pixel art.
Before talking about the game and all, I think it’s worth focusing on these two decisions.
The verb-based system was an evolution following the text-only adventure games of old, where you had to type commands word by word to unlock the next paragraph of text. Graphical adventure games introduced visuals, and with the advent of the mouse, pointing and clicking on objects and characters became a thing. Natural evolution led to choosing the verbs that were the most frequently used, and having the gamer combine such verbs with objects on screen.
This system provided a kind of balance between the almost unlimited universe of actions possible in text adventure games, and the games that used only graphics - such as the later iteration on the genre that went much further by removing verbs all together, introducing pull-down actions directly on objects based on the context. The problem with that path is that it reduces the number of actions you can associate to an object, and also hides the choices available until you hover on the said objects. Every system has its pros and cons, but I think the 80s way of mixing verbs and a graphical interface was a good trade-off. LucasArts was especially successful in making use of “irrelevant” choices, by adding humorous remarks and animaions when the player tried something silly.
Now on to the pixel art thing. I’m not too happy about that deliberate choice. Especially since I experienced the 8bits era myself, I can tell you that nobody made games with* pixel art* for the purpose of pixel art back in the days - it was simply a means to an end. As soon as better resolution became available on 16 bits, all developers were eager to produce better graphics, use more colors and include more details. Nobody tried to keep making sprites in 8 colors and at the lowest 320x200 pixels resolutions. Pixel art was just the best way to get decent graphics out of specific hardware and software limitations. On top of that, everyone used CRT displays back then and all pixel art was completely blurred by that technology, making colors fade in harmony and individual pixels largely invisible. Now CRTs are almost completely gone and we are left with high resolution LCD that have very high fidelity down to the last individual pixel. Pixel art in 2017 looks nothing like pixel art back in the 80s and the 90s, because such displays are gone.
Yet what do we see ? A resurgence of so-called pixel art, literally producing extremely low resolution graphics on screens capable of much finer, accurate details. This is nonsense. There is no doubt that you could make a sprite look better by using higher pixel precision - instead of making your 2D art look obsolete, you could have gorgeous high resolution 2D art that makes the best use of the screen and hardware capabilities of today’s machines. And that would be exactly in the spirit of the games of the 80s, 90s - Day of Tentacle looked way better than Maniac Mansion precisely because devs wanted to make use of all the tech progress that brought more colors and more resolution on screen. And gamers wanted that, too.
Now, how the devs behind Thimbleweed park justified the visual style by saying “we wanted to make it look like a game from the 80-90s”. Well if that is the intention, why not go ALL the way, and restrict your color palette to 8 colors EGA mode ? Why not render all text in low resolution as well ? (in the game graphics are low resolution but all text is rendered with smoothed fonts). Why not ensure the music uses MIDI or Adlib sounds instead of the perfect, 16 bits CD quality music and voice-overs we get to hear? Why not render the game in actual 320x200 resolution and let the window manager deal with the task of rendering it full screen ? While the overall presentation does look lowres, the movement of sprites and scrolling is not low-res at all and clearly benefits from the increased resolution to make all sprite movement look very smooth.
In other words, it sounds like a good excuse to produce low res assets and get away with it rather than a genuine effort to reproduce something that was really like the 80s. I’d contrast that with a game like Shovel Knight where developers actually tried very hard to make a game just like it looked before, with very similar constraints.
Let’s forget about pixels for now, and let’s talk about the meat of the game: the adventure itself.
The game stats with a murder, in 1987 - you play the role of a german traveler who was told to meet someone under the bridge of Thimbleweed Park, and soon after he gets knocked out and killed by an unknown character. Moments later, two federal agents, Ray and Reyes, come on the scene of the crime and discover the corpse of that guy. You then start by taking control of these two characters, and go on a quest to find out who killed that poor guy. At this point it looks very much like Day of the Tentacle, where you control different characters at the same time to achieve the same objective: solving the case.
You soon you realize that Thimbleweed park is a very unusual town. The sheriff is the same person as the coroner, while they pretend not to be and try to hide between a slightly different way of speaking. The town itself is full of shops that closed down after the large PillowTron factory fire that led to shutting down the economic center of the city. Everywhere in town, machines using tubes (not transitors!) are here to automate some aspects of the local population’s life, courtesy of the industrialist Chuck Edmund who used to reign over the city.
You play the game very much like the older LucasArts games. Which means, once you see an object on screen, you should try to pick it up. There is no inventory limit. Even if a certain item is not of use at the present time, you should anyway pick it up. You never know.
Then, you solve puzzles along the way, either by talking to characters or using the right objects at the right place. There’s even a To-Do list that your two characters carry in order to guide you a little bit to ensure you kind of know what to do next.
As you discover the town with your two FBI agents, you progressively hear about folks who have an history around here: Ransome the clown, Delores Edmund, the niece of the industrialist, Franklin Edmund, her father… and such discussions trigger flashbacks with said characters where you get to control them for a short time in the first few chapters. Such flashbacks serve as an introduction to their background and struggles, and are very good and well made. The thing I did not expect, however, is that all of these characters would suddenly become full fledged controllable characters from chapter 2 or so.
This is where the writing is lacking. That the two FBI agents work together make sense, but beyond that it’s hard to reconcile. The other characters either do not know each other, or have different goals, and there is virtually no reason for them to collaborate and help each other. But suddenly, you can have them work on the same puzzle, pass objects and so on. This feels very, very weird and artificial. At least in Day of the Tentacle, it made sense since there was an established connection between Laverne, Bernard and Hoagie - they were friends and found themselves involved with something bigger than them. Here, for example, you “unlock” Delores just when one of the FBI agents knocks on her door. It’s just not enough to explain why they would suddenly help one another. This is especially disappointing as they did a great job to explain such characters’ backgrounds in flashbacks, but when it comes to reconnecting them to the overarching story, the link is missing, and its feels very awkward.
The writing suffers from numerous other issues. As I said before, the end goal of the game seems to be centered around the murder when you start the game. But after a while (if I remember correctly, in part 3), FBI agents suddenly leave town, and the story continues. On one hand, it’s interesting to keep the player surprised as to what is going to happen next, but on the other hand it feels that we don’t know what the main theme or point of the adventure is. It is not until much later in the game that all characters get the very same, converging objective.
To make things even worse, while there is a hint of why characters do things, they all start with a to do list in their inventory, guiding you to what they need to complete at some point. I can understand that the feds have such a list, but for the other characters (especially Ransome and Franklin) it just does not fit well with their persona (these guys are not planners), and it seems like an excuse to make the player do things for reasons that they don’t fully comprehend - in other words, a lack of writing. For example, Franklin, as a ghost, has to “go to the penthouse” of the hotel, but it’s never made clear why he should do that, or why it matters at all. Ransome gets an objective “win tickets for thimbleCon 1987” but once again it’s not established why it matters for him. It matters for Delores (for very clear reasons) but it’s in no way transferable to all other characters. It’s a little confusing.
It’s a shame the writing is so disconnected, because for the most part the overarching story is quite funny and the puzzles quite well thought through. For the first few parts of the game, most puzzles are quite logical and make sense once you think about it a little. Compared to 80s, 90s adventure games, even the “hard” mode of Thimbleweed Park feels like a piece of cake. That’s not to say I was not stuck at all: it did happen a few times, where the devs were clearly stretching it (at some point you need to make ink, and it’s… not straightforward, let me put it this way). Another issue is the cultural assumptions - at one point you are looking for a 5 cents coin (a nickel) and it’s nowhere to be found. Actually, you need to bring an empty glass bottle to a convenience store to get a nickel back from the shop clerk. Maybe this is something typical in the US, but I don’t think it’s relevant for many non-American folks. (note: it’s labeled inside the convenience store, true, but it does not mean everyone will see it).
Puzzles get harder in the later half of the game, but it’s also because of another flaw in writing. There are so many possibilities with 5 characters at hand, numerous locations to visit, that it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. While the game is divided in specific chapters, and while the To Do lists from each character tend to evolve in parallel, some characters are actually going to progress a lot more in a specific chapter, yet you have no way of knowing who is going to lead one chapter forward. Sometimes I was wondering on which character I should focus next. In such situations the To Do lists did not help, and actually made the problem worse.
The game features numerous buildings and locations that can be found on a large map (that looks utterly crap in pixel-art). Once a character obtains a map, that character can move freely from one location to another by clicking on it. But there’s only one map, and you need to use multiple characters to solve puzzles so most of the time you need to move them one by one, from one location to another. Since some places are far from the others, and since there is a lot of back and forth involved, it becomes really tedious when you have to move around the whole time. They should have made it easy for every character to jump from one location to another, as it serves no specific purpose not to. In the last chapter suddenly every character gets a map in their inventory. That should have been done much earlier in the game.
Despite all that, the game succeeds in building upon its characters. Delores, Franklin and especially Ransome are very memorable and fun to deal with. Even non playable characters are quite entertaining, like the Sheriff, the Pigeon Brothers, and the various shop owners in town. You can see there is definitely a lot of thinking that was put in to make characters believable and life-like, and that’s by far the strongest aspect of Thimbleweed Park, along with its voice-over work-a-reno. I am a little torn about the two FBI agents, who have a similar dynamic as Scully/Mulder in X files, and are rather weak and superficial (even in the later chapters) - there is not much opportunity to get to relate to them.
While I did complain about the “pixel art” in the first place, if you can go beyond the fact that everything looks low-res, you will find a certain charm to it. The use of colors, the shades, and the parallax scrolling effect gives a lot of depth to the 2D graphics. I did notice some weird choices though, where some locations are depicted at night, while some others at sunset (while the game takes place at the same time everywhere).
I had an overall positive impression of the game. Sure there are times where I thought the game was overdoing things a little. Like, breaking the fourth wall for the sake of it. Or the gratuitous jokes at Sierra adventure games (famous in the 80s-90s), as if LucasFilm games were exempt of defects. Or… the continuous references to the future (2017, 30 years in the future for the characters in the game) that are not really funny. Well, at least Ransome the clown was funny, by being the jerk who insults everyone and everything and hates himself above all.
I kept going, and I reached the final part of the game. At some point, chapters started to become shorter and shorter, and things accelerated. It felt rushed. And it probably was, as many story plots were left unresolved by the time you reach the end credits (and important ones at that) - it reminded me of Lost, in a way.
The ending is abrupt, unsatisfying and unoriginal. I was like “oh no, couldn’t they come up with something better than that? Not again…”. I will avoid spoilers, but the trope used to end things has been seen over and over again in many other stories and media. It’s almost kind of cheap to do that in this context, after building up plots for 5 characters… just to end there after 12-13 hours. Did they run out of ideas, out of time?
So… I am a little torn. I did really think they had some great situational ideas, some vibrant characters, but overall the writing is a let down in too many ways. It’s probably still better than Broken Age if the comparison makes any sense, but it’s still far from rivaling with the best adventure games of the 80s-90s.
It’s a shame, really.
But at least, it proves one thing. Judging from the interest all around, there is definitely space for more adventure games on the market. I hope we see more experiments in that area. I don’t miss puzzles that much, but anything that’s focused on telling longer, larger stories is a good thing in my book.
Oh, I did not mention anything about the Linux version. Well, it was released on day 1 (great!) and it worked perfectly. No crash, no bugs, nothing to report. And it works also on an old laptop. So. all green-a-reno.